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What is Science Fiction?

That is a question which has been asked since it became a respectable genre of literature. It is also one I've been pondering since I took a college class in science fiction. Science fiction (SF) is unlike any other genre. Not only does it include the 'standard' forms of culture: books, television, movies, and plays; but also games (board and role playing), CD-ROM, music, internet and many others. But attempting to define what it is, give it boundaries, is often a futile attempt. This applies to the sub-genres also.

For example the 'alternate history' stories would obviously include the TV show Sliders and the Turtledove novels on the basis that it deals with a different history. But using that same logic the many Western books, movies, and TV series may also be included. Unless they are based on real events, the story they tell includes cities and people which might have been. In that respect the Lone Ranger is no different than an SF story of what might have happened if the Gold Rush happened decades later.

To extend the logic further, any form of fiction may be considered to be SF. Even dramatizations tend to bend the truth to make it more exciting though somewhat fictional. But few people would consider the Lone Ranger or Forest Gump to be sci-fi. The line dividing science fiction from normal fiction is a judgment call. Is A Connecticut Yankee in King Authur's Court an alternate history, historical fiction, 'mainstream' science fiction, 'normal' fiction, or something else? Could it be all those things? That is another problem with defining SF, it crosses over into other genres.

Star Trek is drama, Predator is action, Red Dwarf is comedy, and Power Rangers is children's. But they are all also SF. So when deciding where they belong I feel the different genres should be prioritized, that each one should be included in the primary category. Is Predator an action movie with an SF edge or an SF movie with a lot of action? Answer that and you found the appropriate category.

Another quirk of SF is that it can subdivide multiple ways. Not only can you have hard, soft, and middle science fiction, there are individual sub-genres like alternate history, cyberpunk, and first contact. Hard/soft/middle refers to how closely the narrative follows the known laws of physics and the capabilities of technolgies. Hard science fiction is usually drama or tragedy because it deals with harsh reality. Soft, on the other hand, only use enough physics to keep it from falling into magic and fantasy. Anything which happens has, at worst, a pseudo-scientific explination which the author tries to make plausible. Most, however, falls into the middle, trying to stick to the laws of physics violating them when necessary for the sake of plot. For example Star Trek has faster than light engines and transporters. Each has some basis in scientific theory but both are absolutely essential to the premise of the series (interstellar exploration).

As part of the class final, I wrote and essay to the original question. Each time I tried to define it, I found ways to include things generally considered non-SF. Then I realzed that ANY so-called definition of SF good enough to include all science fiction would also include ANY fiction period. That is part of the answer. The other part is accepting that labeling something as SF or non-SF is someone's opinion. Once those two items are combined, probably the best definition of SF results.

Science fiction is whatever you want it to be.

Visit the SFF Net | Syfy Channel

Of course reading SF and knowing how to write it are two different things. But part of writing good SF is reading good SF. I believe I have developed enough skill to at least try writing some. I have the premise and basic plot ideas, but they're not always enough to form a complete work. I admit, finding a task (or a series of tasks) for my characters to do is my biggest obstacle. It's not easy.